In October 2015, I attended the 2015 Gluten-Free and Allergen Friendly Expo in New Jersey on assignment. I wrote an article for Jezebel that poked fun at the food, the attendees, and the entire concept of gluten intolerance, which I perceived largely as a trendy symptom of privileged white hysteria. But the joke was on me: less than 5 months later, I could no longer eat gluten or dairy.
For my entire life up until just after my 26th birthday, I ate like a very small, very finicky 17-year-old football player. Bagels or pastries for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, pasta for dinner, cookies and ice cream in between. When I returned to college from a semester abroad in Spain, I was discovered to be clinically malnourished, largely because I only ate unfortified pasta and sausages. My eating habits were both a point of shame and of pride—never would I succumb to the dreary pox of Woman Food, with its chopped salads and probiotics and tiny satchels of almonds. Never would I say “No, thanks!” to a slice of pizza. Or so I thought.
It started with the bloat. A hard, round ball of—let’s be honest—gas began to fill my lower abdomen, making me appear anywhere from 3-5 months pregnant. “Maybe you’ve just gained weight,” my roommate suggested helpfully. So pregnant did I appear that I began walking around with my large purse angled in front of my stomach, like an expectant Kerry Washington on the set of Scandal. Occasionally, when surrounded by strangers, I would (and still sometimes do) embrace my role as Mother of Gas, resting a protective hand on my belly with a dreamy expression. I honestly have no idea why.
When I went to the first of many, many doctor’s visits, she confirmed that this was indeed extreme bloating and asked if I’d considered cutting out gluten and dairy. She might have asked if I’d considered drowning myself in the toilet, or wearing nipple clamps to work; these suggestions would have been equally plausible lifestyle options. But unfortunately for me and everyone forced to eat meals with me, over the next few weeks those particular foods actually began to make me sick. In March 2016, I ate my last Potbelly sandwich, and cried.
Six months later, I still haven’t figured out exactly what’s wrong with me. I feel horrible when I eat gluten and dairy products, so I don’t—which, for the record, sucks—but other symptoms, including the bloat, have clung on. I’ve had a handful of blood tests, an endoscopy, a colonoscopy, bacterial overgrowth testing, gynecological exams, and am currently considering shelling out $200 to see my friend’s witch doctor in the East Village. My diet is now drastically different—I mostly eat vegetables, rice, meat, fish, kimchee, and rolled oats, like a supermodel preparing for a shoot with absolutely none of the physical results.
This is, and I am not exaggerating, the only thing I ever want to talk about. My own father has asked me to change the subject. I have become completely insufferable, my own worst nightmare, obsessed with the puzzle of my malfunctioning body. If you’re eating a quesadilla near me? Watch out, my eyes will fill with tears. If you’re cursed with the wretched task of waiting my table? You had better believe we will be going through the menu together item by item. If you invite me to your house for the weekend? We will have a very uncomfortable conversation about what I can and cannot eat, and I will come armed with gluten-free oatmeal and brown rice pasta anyways in case you fuck up.
I used to believe that the amount of collective energy being spent agonizing over “food sensitivities” was disproportionate to the issue itself, which I saw as needlessly inflated. And to a certain extent, I still believe this—on the grand scale of shitty things that happen to people, chronic gastrointestinal issues and an ever-expanding list of food intolerances aren’t the worst problems in the world, particularly if you have the resources to deal with them. But it really can feel that way, because food is so wrapped up in every facet of our social existence; being suddenly unable to participate in a low-maintenance way is incredibly isolating. My life has become a running montage of foods I can’t eat, taunting me.
Recently, while writing about the Democratic Convention arena’s defunct “Gluten Free Zone,” I briefly considered disclosing the very relevant fact that I had been excitedly anticipating this zone for personal reasons. I eventually decided against it. “I’m not ready,” I told my editor Emma at the time. “Lol,” she responded.
Well, I am ready now. On the eve of my company’s sale, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to the many, many gluten-free Twitter users who were deeply offended by my article about the 2015 Gluten-Free and Allergen Friendly Expo. I was wrong.
I would also like to request that whoever hexed me please undo it.